Where and when Amazon should set its new Lord of the Rings TV series
Amazon is spending a stupefying (and yet entirely justified) $250 million just for the rights to make a TV series set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, even going so far as to commit to multiple seasons of the show despite not yet having the slightest idea what shape or form the show will take.
Amazon’s one rule is that the story must take sometime before the One Ring gets destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. Of course, Tolkien famously spent a lifetime filling in details of the Lord of the Rings universe all the way back to the birth of the very first angel before time began, so Amazon has no shortage of possibilities.
Fortunately, the Agony Booth has narrowed down the options to the three absolute best. Definitively and without question. You’re welcome, Amazon.
Option #1: Sauron offers Rings of Power to nine Human kings
Time: 6,000 years before the Lord of the Rings
Tolkien wrote surprisingly little about the nine kings who accepted Rings of Power from Sauron and slowly devolved into his undead slaves. Thus, Amazon has a nearly blank state to create their world.
We know their kingdoms would not at all resemble the great and noble nations of Gondor and Arnor, which were founded by Aragorn’s ancestors nearly 2,000 years later. They were fearful, violent, brutal places that constantly warred with each other. They feared and avoided the Elves, who loathed them right back, and they were constantly harassed by Sauron’s Orcs and other evil creatures. There was also an enormous threat from a vastly more advanced civilization across the ocean, which kept landing more ships on the shores of Middle-earth and turning the local kings into subservient vassals.
This is probably the best era for Amazon if they want to emulate Game of Thrones as closely as possible. There are no good guys in the traditional fantasy sense, just chaos, betrayal, and war.
Into this chaos, a beautiful Elf lord named Annatar began visiting human kings and promising them knowledge and technologies that would allow them subdue their neighbors and bring peace and prosperity to their lands. Among the many, many gifts he lavished upon the kings, Annatar gave each of them a magic ring that made all people kowtow to their will. In the years that followed, this power inevitably corrupted the kings until they were ruthless, vicious tyrants.
Annatar was, of course, not an Elf lord at all but Sauron in disguise. Sauron had not yet made the One Ring that would allow him to enslave the nine kings completely to his will, so at this point he just let the nine rings work their corrupting power on their own.
Our recommendation: The TV series could follow a small kingdom on the verge of collapse. Neighboring armies are sure to overrun it within a year, which has led to panic and betrayal among the noble families, all of whom are plotting against the young king. All seems hopeless until the mysterious and beautiful Elf lord Annatar appears and offers his services to the king at the end of the first episode.
Over the course of the first season, the king becomes completely dependent on Annatar, who serves as the Merlin to his King Arthur, using magic to keep the king’s enemies (internal and external) at bay, and always guiding him toward the most ruthless and power-hungry solution to his problems. The king slowly learns that this isn’t the first time Annatar has mysteriously appeared to help a kingdom that’s about to fall, and those previous kingdoms are now among the most powerful in Middle-earth—including two of the enemy kingdoms threatening to overrun his own. But the rulers of those kings have all gone mad and are now the most cruel, feared tyrants in the world.
Following this revelation, the young king tries to distance himself from Annatar and refuse his aid, but this leads to compete defeat on the battlefield, and the kingdom is about to be destroyed. In the season finale, the young king must decide whether to accept a Ring of Power (which he knows will slowly destroy him personally, and ultimately transform his entire nation into pure evil) or allow all his people to be massacred and enslaved by kings who have already accepted Rings of Power of their own.
The rest of the series would follow the young king over the years as he slowly surrenders to darkness and embraces evil magics, becoming a sorcerer king—a Witch-King, if you will—until Sauron at last makes the One Ring and claims his soul.
Option #2: The destruction of Arnor and Angmar
Time: 2,000 years before the Lord of the Rings
Aragorn’s ancestors founded two kingdoms: Gondor in the south, and Arnor in the north. For the first couple of thousand years, Arnor got the worst of it. Constant war, famine, plague, that stuff. You know, pretty much what you’d expect from a European-style feudal kingdom.
Most of the problems came from the neighboring evil kingdom of Angmar, which was pretty much Mordor, Jr. It was ruled by the immortal Witch-King, Chief of the Ringwraiths, who really, really wanted everyone in Arnor dead, and preferably dying in the most painful way possible. (Dude had issues.)
Gondor, on the other hand, was peaceful and happy. Mordor remained pretty quiet for a long time after the apparent death of Sauron when he lost the One Ring, so the noble families eventually got bored and started feuding for power among each other. You know, pretty much what you’d expect from a European-style feudal kingdom.
If you compress the timeline a little so that events that played out over 80 years can happen over the course of six or seven seasons, some pretty awesome shit goes down.
Our recommendation: The show kicks off with Gondor in turmoil because the king has just died, and various relatives are competing over the throne. When Arnor’s king sends messengers suggesting it’s time to merge the two kingdoms under his rule, the suggestion is not taken well, to say the least. Earnil II is ultimately crowned, despite the stronger claim from the dead king’s daughter.
Earnil is an evil son of a bitch who immediately begins a vindictive campaign to humiliate the dead king’s daughter and the king of Arnor, even going as far as to provide secret aid to the Witch-King. The dead king’s daughter ultimately flees to Arnor and marries its king, enraging Earnil further.
At the end of the first season, Earnil sees the true extent of the Witch-King’s evil and repents just as the Witch-King launches an overwhelming assault on Arnor. His full army races north to save their sister kingdom. But Earnil is too late; Arnor is entirely destroyed, the dead king’s daughter is dead, and Arnor’s king has fled into the icy north with their infant son.
The rest of the series is about Earnil’s redemption as he goes to war with Angmar, ultimately destroying it, though dying in the process. In the series finale, Earnil’s son falls in combat with the Witch-King himself, bringing an end to the line of kings in Gondor and leaving the country in control of the stewards until Aragorn shows up to claim the throne in The Return of the King.
Option #3: Young Aragorn’s adventures in Minas Tirith
Time: Between the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings
Okay, “Young Aragorn’s adventures in Minas Tirith” sounds cheesy as hell, which is why it amused me to put it that way. The actual story is much more badass, although it does have a touch of CW teen drama to it, what with all the petty family jealousy and a secret prince in disguise.
As a young man, Aragorn goes to Minas Tirith and serves the Steward of Gondor (Denethor’s daddy) as a captain in the army. Young Denethor immediately hates Young Aragorn because his dad’s got such a boner for the guy.
Young Aragorn hides his royal lineage and goes by the fake name Thorongil, which despite how it sounds, is not a brand name douche for Norse goddesses. Gandalf also shows up a lot and heaps praise on Young Aragorn, further pissing off Young Denethor. Plus, a super hot Elf princess regularly drops by to give Young Aragorn blowies (probably), so it’s pretty hard not to hate the guy.
Our recommendation: This show would play out more like Rome than Game of Thrones, with rival noble families vying for power within the capital city of Minas Tirith, while lower-class soldiers live fractured lives between their families in the city and their military campaigns out in the country. Most of it would revolve around the rivalry between Aragorn and Denethor, with various nobles and soldiers being forced to pick sides, ultimately creating a complicated web of alliances and betrayals.
However, there would be an overarching external villain: the chief of the Ringwraiths, who at this point is commanding the armies of Mordor from his city of Minas Morgul.
This is the version that’s closest in time and tone to the Lord of the Rings movies. There are clear heroes and villains. We’re visiting a lot of the places and people we’ve seen before. Hey, look, there’s Young Theoden of Rohan dropping by for a few episodes. And here’s one of the 62 interchangeable Dwarfs who adventured with Bilbo! It’s crowd-pleasing. But it’s also so far up the ass of the existing movies that there’s little room for original storytelling. Everything becomes a nod to what we already know.
At the end of the first episode, Denethor decides in desperation to look into the Palantir for the first time. The knowledge he gains only drives him to further acts of desperation, which lead to a great battle outside the gates of Minas Tirith in the season finale. Denethor’s father is killed in the battle, leaving Denethor a very guilt-ridden and unready steward in season two. The series ends with Sauron openly declaring himself ruler of Mordor once more.